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Countering Violent Extremism: A Community Partnership Approach

By Richard Stanek, Sheriff, Hennepin County, Minnesota

In February 2011, the author wrote an article, “It Can and Does Happen Here: Somali Youth with Terrorist Ties in the Twin Cities.”1 The article identifies an emerging issue law enforcement faced in Hennepin County involving international terrorist organizations targeting Somali youth for radicalization and recruitment. In this earlier article, the author highlighted three lessons learned as the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office started building its countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy to address the issues of radicalization and recruitment of Somali youth: (1) Homegrown terrorism is a real threat for every community; (2) Build communities of trust and use community-oriented policing effectively; and (3) A vigilant public must assist law enforcement. Since that article, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has had many accomplishments in implementing its CVE strategy.

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has shared its story at multiple U. S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) workshops, panels, and community roundtables and U.S. Department of Justice meetings. Its federal partners have been instrumental in supporting the efforts by providing resources like the Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States and the CVE Training Resources web portal on the Homeland Security Information Network.2 John Cohen, Senior Advisor to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, commented, “Hennepin County’s holistic approach to CVE balances the competing forces of enforcement and community outreach, and through Sheriff Stanek’s actions in Hennepin County and his service with multiple national organizations, Hennepin County is at the forefront of the CVE effort.”3

CVE is a multipronged effort and must include information sharing, suspicious activity reporting, robust community outreach, community-oriented policing, and officer training. As the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office evaluated its strategy and operations, it realized that an organizational culture that focuses on the flow of information had to be created. Providing relevant, timely, and usable information to the deputies on the street; receiving suspicious activity or critical information observed by the deputies and citizens on the street; and putting that information into the information-sharing network in a timely and organized manner are critical to the flow of information. The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office also realized that many of the techniques it used in community-oriented policing and community outreach for combating gang violence could be used to counter radicalization and recruitment in the Somali community.

In response to its internal evaluations and the needs of the community, the decision was made to reorganize a portion of the agency and reprioritize resources. Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office made a commitment to being a leader in information-sharing, analysis, and intelligence-led policing and a commitment to building strong, purposeful, and trusting relationships with the Somali community. To accomplish these commitments, both efforts were incorporated into its strategic planning process. Everyone in the agency was committed to making this work—from top-level leadership down to the deputy on the street.

There are many good reasons to dedicate personnel and resources to community-oriented policing and community outreach. It increases the number of partners working to enhance public safety in the county. It is a force multiplier. With more eyes and ears in the community to identify and report potential threats and issues, the number of opportunities to identify risks to public safety increases, which increases the chance to disrupt violent crime and prevent acts of terrorism.

Members of the community—parents, grandparents, friends, teachers, faith-based leaders, and coaches—can be the first to observe activity related to crime and terrorism. Members of the community who see that kind of activity will report it only if they trust law enforcement. A trusting relationship with the Somali community is a crucial piece in learning about behaviors or activities that, when properly reported, will help protect members of the community from harm.

Earlier this year, the physical location of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Homeland Security unit moved to be co-located with its Investigative Division. This move immediately increased the daily interaction with its Criminal Information Sharing and Analysis (CISA) unit to ensure information is exchanged between the information community and the investigators and deputies on the street. Our Homeland Security unit is also very engaged with local businesses, hotels, malls, and other critical infrastructure to increase public awareness about the If You See Something, Say Something campaign.

Over the past couple of years, one of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office’s strategic priorities has been advancing capabilities and best practices in criminal intelligence information sharing and analysis throughout the county and region. Its CISA unit has been recognized as a national model and is a valuable asset to the other 34 local law enforcement agencies in the county. Additionally, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office partnered with six neighboring sheriff’s offices to create the Metropolitan Regional Information Collaborative, which builds on and expands many of the successful practices of the CISA unit for agencies outside the county in the greater metropolitan area.

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office’s Somali Community Outreach Initiative is structured around four objectives: (1) building trusting and lasting relationships between the Sheriff’s Office and key community leaders; (2) identifying strategies for overcoming cultural and language barriers in contacts and key communications; (3) sharing strategies and lessons learned across its agency with other agencies, and with the community at large, to further the goal of integration; and (4) recruiting Somali community members for its staff (sworn, non-sworn, and volunteers), Citizen Law Enforcement Academy, and Community Advisory Board to ensure the Somali community’s input is obtained.

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has worked on several projects to accomplish the objectives listed above. It engaged in a comprehensive outreach approach with the Somali Community and made a concerted effort to include all subgroups to ensure an inclusive and robust dialogue developed – its efforts included outreach to elders, religious leaders, educators, women’s groups, and youth.

Building Trusting Relationships

Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office’s dedicated Community Engagement Team (CET) attends countless events, and the sergeant who leads the CET is learning to speak the Somali language through Somali immersion classes. He is highly active in the community with vigils, funerals, events, meetings, school visits, and business group functions. One important principle that was learned is that the Somali community needed reassurances and a place to voice concerns. The CET provides them a resource to contact day or night. One of the most important things the CET does is answer questions and clear-up misinformation after high-profile crimes or tragedies that occur in the community.

Additionally, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has hosted and participated in multiple DHS community roundtables to foster open dialogue between Somali community leaders and federal, state, and local law enforcement. The Hennepin County Sheriff has attended these roundtables personally and meets regularly with community leaders one-on-one. Regular and consistent participation of the chief law enforcement officer is one of the key measures as to whether community leaders consider meetings meaningful in establishing trusting relationships. Frankly, there is a concern amongst Somali leaders that their positions of authority be recognized and honored by someone they view as a peer, not someone they view as a subordinate. Commitment by the chief law enforcement officer to these meetings is of the utmost importance.

Hennepin County is now at a point where the level of trust between the Somali community and the sheriff’s office is strong enough that Somali community members have called to report crimes and suspicious activity. An important leader in the Somali community, Imam Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble, offered these comments about the relationship, “Sheriff Stanek and the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office have been steadfast partners to the Somali community. Over the past couple of years, we have made great progress in developing a robust dialogue and trust.”4 This level of trust was one of the key factors missing between law enforcement and the Somali community just a few years ago.

Overcoming Cultural Barriers

As the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office continued its engagement in the Somali community, a general distrust and fear of law enforcement from past experiences in Somalia involving corruption or inhumane treatment became apparent. To address these concerns, jail tours for elders and religious leaders in the Somali community were provided. The tours provide a forum where the humane treatment provided in the Hennepin County jail was presented. Qurans are available, and Muslim dietary restrictions are honored. Additionally, the sheriff’s office has an on-call Imam for the jail and a Somali nurse.

The same types of questions were answered on a repeated basis. Members of the Somali community asked questions like the following:

  • “What do I do if I get pulled over while driving?”
  • “Will I be deported if I call 9-1-1?”
  • “Is law enforcement in the United States the same as law enforcement in other countries?”

The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Somali-American Elders’ Roundtable was established to meet regularly with leaders in the Somali community. This forum allows open lines of communications between the sheriff’s office and Somali community. In addition to its Somali-American Elders’ Roundtable, both a Somali-American Women’s Roundtable, which provides a forum for Somali women to raise and discuss unique issues they face in the community, and a Somali-American Youth Roundtable, which provides youth in the community a forum to raise and discuss issues, were created.

Sharing Strategies and Lessons Learned

The importance of this goal cannot be overstated. Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has shared best practices with local, state, national, and international law enforcement agencies, as well as with community and civic groups. Over the past few years, its best practices also have been shared with law enforcement officials from the following countries: Tajikistan, Albania, Hungary, Italy, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, France, Norway, the Netherlands, and Canada. On some occasions, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office hosted international delegations and provided briefings to them directly, and on other occasions, members of its agency have participated in forums or panels on various CVE-related topics. In addition to external sharing, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office conducted numerous hours of in-house training on Somali cultural awareness for its licensed deputies and other local law enforcement agencies within Hennepin County.

Recruiting Members of the Somali Community

Somali members have been recruited to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Community Advisory Board (CAB). The CAB is a group of community leaders who live or work in Hennepin County. The board meets regularly with the sheriff to exchange ideas and information on public safety concerns and to consider emerging trends and policy issues. This was another key milestone in building a trusting relationship with the Somali community, as leaders in the Somali community now hold honored positions on the CAB.

The sheriff’s office hosted multiple one-day Somali Citizen Law Enforcement Academies. It identified and enlisted key community leader support and assistance with recruiting attendees and communicating about concerns and challenges. To help with logistical challenges, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office arranged and provided transportation; served culturally sensitive meals provided by a trusted Somali caterer; adjusted schedules and curricula to address the community’s needs as identified by the key leaders; and provided culturally specific room configurations and arrangements to encourage women to participate. The sheriff’s office arranged for photos, a certificate presentation for attendees, and regular communication after the event. In addition to its One-Day Citizens’ Academy, Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has multiple Somali graduates from its full 10-week Citizen Law Enforcement Academy.

Recently, some important additions were made to the staff at the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. The first Somali deputy and first Somali cadet were hired. The cadet has been a great addition to the agency. He is able to provide a unique perspective and detailed guidance as the sheriff’s office continues its outreach efforts in the Somali community. He has also been instrumental in helping to produce in-house training materials on the Somali community. Additionally, a prominent member of the Somali community was contracted to act as a civilian outreach liaison. He has been instrumental in organizing and identifying Somali leaders to participate in both the Somali-American Elders’ Roundtable and Somali-American Women’s Roundtable.

Great progress has been made over the past several years. However, it is not all good news. Unfortunately, late in 2012, another Somali youth was recruited by the international terrorist organization al Shabab. A young man named Omar Farah, who went to high school in Minneapolis and attended a year of college at the University of Minnesota, was recruited and went to Somalia to join al Shabab. 5 This is a reminder that Hennepin County must work every day to combat this issue.

However, in this case, the family worked with the authorities and the media about their missing son. The family did not withhold information like other families did back in 2008 and 2009. This is a giant step in the right direction for the law enforcement community. FBI Minneapolis Division Special Agent in Charge Chris Warrener said, “the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office has been a great partner and a leader in the CVE effort. The partnership between the FBI and the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office is a great example of federal and local agencies working together to increase public safety.”6 The relationships and trust built over the past couple of years allowed law enforcement to find out about this case early on, leading to valuable, timely intelligence.

With continued partnership among the Somali community and federal, state, and local law enforcement, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office will continue its proactive approach to its CVE strategy. ♦

1Richard W. Stanek, “It Can and Does Happen Here: Somali Youth with Terrorist Ties in the Twin Cities,” The Police Chief 78 (February 2011): 48-52, (accessed on May 5, 2013).
2Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States (White House National Security Staff, December 2011), (accessed on May 5, 2013). The materials on the Joint CVE Training Resources web portal are restricted for law enforcement training use only. To request access to the Joint CVE Training Resources web portal, visit (accessed August 16, 2013).
3John Cohen, email interview with the author, April 2013.
4Imam Sheikh Sa’ad Musse Roble, telephone interview with the author, April 2013.
5Amy Forliti, “Family: Minnesota Somali Left to Join al-Shabab,” Star Tribune, September 21, 2012, (accessed on May 5, 2013).
6Special Agent in Charge Chris Warrener, email interview with the author, April 2013.

Richard W. Stanek is the 27th Sheriff of Hennepin County. He was first sworn in on January 1, 2007, and was re-elected as sheriff of Minnesota’s largest county in 2010. In his 30 years of law enforcement, Sheriff Stanek has authored Minnesota’s Homeland Security Act of 2002, was appointed Commissioner of Public Safety & Director of Homeland Security for Minnesota in 2003, and currently chairs the National Sheriff’s Association (NSA) Homeland Security Committee. He also serves on the NSA Board of Directors and is president of the Major County Sheriff’s Association. Sheriff Stanek has presented about his executive-level perspective on implementing CVE programs and building community partnerships at numerous workshops and conferences.

Please cite as:

Richard Stanek, "Countering Violent Extremism: A Community Partnership Approach," The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 42–48.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 10, October 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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